It was a passing thing, the merest of blips in the constantly gushing torrent of news, if even by chance one happened to have noticed it at all. It was simply this: Two widely reported celebrity deaths happened in quick succession, and both persons died at the age of 69. The first was the pop-music legend David Bowie, who reportedly died on January 10th, and the second was the actor Alan Rickman, who we’re told died on January 14th. (Both were also Englishmen.)
Death was the chief topic at church this morning. It is a sturdy old standby. Death, ironically enough, never seems to get old. Just when you might think it’s become old hat — that you’ve been there, done that and moved on — death has this way of reasserting itself in one’s life in some novel and unexpected way. Endlessly resourceful, death may sometimes take a holiday but, just like taxes, will always return demanding to be paid. And even if you purchase an island and declare personal sovereignty, you turn out still to be within the dominion claimed by death. You may argue and protest, of-course, but while the case is tied up in the courts death will simply take everything you own and move on. (Exactly like taxes, then.)
Someone who is well aware at the moment of the truth of all the above is Miley Cyrus. A few days ago her dog Floyd died suddenly. I intend no mockery here: as a lover of dogs, I have no doubt as to the genuineness of the grief felt by a dog owner when one dies. There can even be an added nakedness and rawness to the emotion. The mechanisms and rituals we human beings have for finding consolation and closure after the death of a fellow human being aren’t there in the same way when a pet dies. And no matter how senior, a dog’s life always seems to have been too short, because their lifespans are so short compared to ours. Continue reading Death is not the End→
A 35 year-old woman fell to her death from the 17th floor of a building on 57th St. in New York City last night (or early this morning). She was apparently leaning against the railings on her apartment’s balcony when those railings suddenly gave way. The details are no doubt still to be fully established. Obviously, tragic accidents occur every day. This one is in the news at all only because of the particular drama of such a fall in midtown Manhattan. The story itself is, truth be told, relevant only to the people personally involved, and the people who mourn the woman’s loss.
Yet, what’s really remarkable is seeing the kinds of comments on this story that so many people have left, using in most cases their real names and Facebook identities. I don’t read comment sections anymore as a rule, but the first ones I saw on this were so horrible that I felt obliged to go on and see if they continued in that vein. And they did. Many of the most vile remarks were those directed at the dead woman because the story had reported that she was smoking on her balcony when the accident occurred. People felt it worthwhile to pause long enough on the page to leave brief derisive comments such as, “Who wants to date a woman who smokes and smells like tobacco – yuck,” or “She was a smoker. Poor judgment is par for the course.” Or something along the lines of “Tobacco kills!” Again, people using their real names, with photos and actual Facebook profiles attached (sometimes hugging a spouse or clasping their small child in their arms) stop to leave a random insult on a public webpage with a story about a woman who has just died. They are capable of being just that shameless. Continue reading Sad Commentary: A Fatal Fall at Sutton Place→
It seems that I’ve traversed a line of some sort, and passed a milestone detectable only by elite marketing professionals. Age-wise, I am somewhere in my forties (I make a conscious effort not to keep precise records anymore), and I was as of this afternoon feeling reasonable healthy. I returned from a quick run around in the park with my dog, and opened the mailbox to find a single item addressed personally to me.
The front of what is an 8″ x 14″ card, folded in fours, pictures the sun setting over a gently sloping meadow, dotted with trees. In the foreground are clusters of dandelions, blowing in the breeze. There’s a small, curving path through the meadow, with tracks as might be left by a farmer’s small tractor.
Or, on second thought, by the cart carrying his corpse. Large white letters on the upper left tell the recipient of this card that, “You’ve traveled many roads to get where you are today ….” The logo in the lower right of the picture identifies the sender: St. Michael’s Cemetery.
Unfolding the card reveals much information on amenities at my would-be future abode. St. Michael’s is not just a “warehouse for the past” (how could you think such a thing?); it is instead a place that “celebrates life.” There are concerts during the summer, and on Valentine’s Day too. It’s a great place to “share memories with friends and family members.” There are monthly billing options and you can get started with just 10% down. It’s unclear whether heat and hot water are included.
I don’t know if this is a one-off solicitation, or whether I can expect a steady flow of graveyard advertising from here on out. Now, I try to remain conscious of the fact that death is only ever a moment away, and each morning presents a new day for which one ought to be grateful. I would not say that the prospect of the Grim Reaper’s arrival makes me feel sanguine, by any means, but bearing him in mind can be bracing and helpful in its way.
Having to deal with his junk mail, however, seems a bit excessive.
Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian and a Christian pastor, was sentenced to death after being convicted of apostasy from Islam in November of 2010. Since then, international pressure and attention has kept him alive.
Amnesty International has taken up his case. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said:
It is shocking that the Iranian authorities would even consider killing a man simply for exercising his right to choose a religion other than Islam.
The article by Nicholas Schmidle in the New Yorker—“Getting Bin Laden”—seems to be the most detailed account yet published on the mission to kill the al-Qaeda leader. Although it provides background and a postscript, it focuses largely on the SEAL mission itself. Of-course any piece like this is only as good as its sources, and we don’t really know who Schmidle’s sources are, but the story comes across very credibly, to this reader at least, and I definitely recommend reading it in full. It should fill any American’s heart with awe at the caliber of those wearing the uniform and putting themselves on the line every day. As the article makes clear, the mission that night was in some ways not unusual at all; these kinds of dangerous and daring attacks on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets are executed on a regular basis. The unusual things in this case were (1) venturing so far within Pakistan and (2) the name of the primary target. In some ways, as scary and nerve-wracking as it is even to read the account months later, this mission was significantly easier than the average one, in that Osama bin Laden’s compound was not well-defended. Of-course it’s easy to know that after the fact, aware as we are now that there were no booby-traps or suicide vests awaiting the SEALs. They couldn’t know those things that night. Continue reading How Osama bin Laden met his end→
In a recent New York Times op-ed titled“Death and Budgets,” columnist David Brooks points to the example of a writer named Dudley Clendinen to illustrate what Brooks apparently feels is the correct way to face death, especially from that which we call terminal illness. Dudley Clendinen is sixty-six years-old, and has a diagnosis of A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He wrote a piece himself for the Times called “The Good Short Life” in which he explains his decision to forgo a variety of treatments that could keep him alive for some additional years, albeit in a progressively more disabled state. Essentially he says that he is plumping to let the disease take its course, and he thinks it likely that he will die from aspirational pneumonia some time in the next several months (although he is not opposed to giving himself a shove into death by some other means if he deems it necessary).
David Brooks moves quickly to presenting Clendinen’s story as a valuable “backdrop to the current budget mess.” Health care costs being such a big part of it, he argues, wouldn’t it be great if everyone had the same attitude to death as Dudley Clendinen? Our society would save so much money by not having to provide great quantities of medical care to the elderly and terminally ill, when all it does is provide them with a few more years of living—and diminished living at that. His argument is really just that simple. Continue reading Mistaken and Dangerous: David Brooks on “Death and Budgets”→
The day Michael Jackson’s death was reported, Yours Truly wrote a brief note:
What can you say about the American tragedy and grim parable that the Michael Jackson story represents? I’m stumped for comment. There’s just one pointless phrase that keeps repeating and repeating in my head: “Blame it on the boogie.” It was a good tune.
And it was. It can be heard and watched via YouTube below, but beware: the special effects in this video are mind-blowing, and have never been explained nor duplicated.
That song is from the Jacksons (aka Jackson 5) 1978 album Destiny. To my mind, it serves as the marker for the beginning of Michael Jackson’s golden years. His 1979 solo album, Off The Wall, continued the upward trend, and it peaked with 1982’s Thriller. Then, his music entered a steep decline, which was apparently mirrored in his personal life. The golden years were short, but strong enough to establish him in many people’s minds as a talent of historic proportions. It’s hardly necessary to point out that Michael Jackson seems to be tremendously overrated by some, and yet on the other hand he is sometimes too quickly dismissed by others. For a few years there he had a great thing going. He embodied a mercurial synthesis of pop, soul and disco, augmented by really great songwriting and smart, tasteful production. It’s just amazing how quickly something so good can fall apart.
Here’s a slightly more somber but still enjoyable take on “Blame It On The Boogie,” from friends The Higher Animals.
There has been considerable evidence accumulated through various studies that sitting for many hours each day—as so many people do as a matter of course at work, not to mention in recreational screen-watching—is extremely hazardous to one’s heath, especially when it comes to heart disease. A new report today has a cardiologist stating that it is every bit as dangerous as smoking. Continue reading Sitting, Your Health, and Donald Rumsfeld→
George W. Bush declined President Barack Obama’s invitation to appear with him at Ground Zero in Manhattan tomorrow. Bill Clinton couldn’t make it either. It’s not entirely clear why they would have been invited, or what the current president is trying to do with the death of Osama Bin Laden.
A compilation of tweets wishing for Sarah Palin to be shot and/or killed in various ways, posted to YouTube:
Notice that many were sent on Saturday, January 8th, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting in Tucson.
This was before Sarah Palin had been so uncouth as to inject herself into the debate over the shooting, by daring to defend herself and other conservatives from the charge that they inspired Jared Loughner to commit murder.
I know that the same kinds of people people hated Reagan like this, and they hated George W. Bush like this, but for there to be this kind of focus of vile toxic hatred on someone who is not even officially a candidate for president yet … it’s unbelievable.
In 1989, a book was published called “Believing Today: Jew & Christian in Conversation.” It was in effect a conversation between Rabbi Klenicki and Richard John Neuhaus (then a Lutheran pastor). I’ve found this little book to be endlessly fascinating, and I get some fresh illumination every time I pick it up again. Neither Klenicki nor Neuhaus are pretending to represent every practitioner of their respective faiths; it is just what it is: a conversation between two intelligent and knowledgeable believers who value being faithful to their respective traditions. There is no subject from which the two men shy away, be it the history of Christian anti-Semitism, the holocaust, the Messiah, the secularizing impulses of American Jewry, etc, etc. The book is not about holding hands and pretending that everyone believes the same things, but rather about understanding differences, and probing for genuine and firmly-based common ground. Which seem like good goals for Jewish/Christian relations in general. Continue reading Rabbi Leon Klenicki→
There are many touching remembrances of Richard John Neuhaus being published far and near. In this passage from Hadley Arkes’s tribute (beginning about halfway down this page), he humorously recalls hearing the rumors that RJN was to convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism:
But before there had been any announcement, and while the benign gossip had been making its way within “the family,” I phoned: “Richard, I just wanted to tell you that I’ve heard the news, or I’ve heard versions of it, and I want to be among the first to congratulate you. For the word is that you are about to join the Lubovachers.” He said, “Hadley, I’ll never forget this conversation.” About a year or so later, we were gathered at the seminary at Dunwoodie for his ordination, and Cardinal O’Connor, with his characteristic humor, said, “Richard, you don’t deserve this ….any more than I deserve the honor of being here, ministering to you.” Richard was just lit up that afternoon, with a freshness and sparkle rare even for him, as we all gathered in the garden after the ceremony. I noted again “the family” gathered around – George Weigel, Bob Royal, David Novak, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz.
And I couldn’t help wondering what Cardinal O’Connor would make of it all: Who was this man, with so wide a reach, bringing in with him this contingent so varied that it included Jews? He would offer his prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; it was the Catholicism of John Paul II, which incorporated the Jewish tradition. Were the Jews on the way to Rome? Or was it that Rome had brought the Jewish ethic to the rest of the world? As one friend put it, When you’re Catholic, you are at least Jewish. And that sense of things, nurtured by Richard, has marked the cast in which I too would find myself moving.
Earlier this year, California health officials estimated that secondhand smoke kills about 3,400 nonsmoking Americans annually from lung cancer, 46,000 from heart disease, and 430 from SIDS.
I don’t even trust my own doctor, let alone some nameless “California health officials” who dish out impossible-to-verify estimates. Garbage piled upon garbage ultimately will add up to a hill of the same stuff, and the Surgeon General is planting his flag squarely upon that edifice. Continue reading The Death of Hospitality→